Games and Gaming

In Hot Tubs and Pac-Man: Gender and the Early Video Game Industry in the United States, historian Anne Ladyem McDivitt examines the history of the American video game industry through the lens of gender. She argues that “Many of the threads that began in the early years continued or have parallels with the modern video game industry.”1 Thus, because “the creation of video games and the industry began in a world strongly gendered male…The industry continues to struggle with gender relations in the workplace and with the strongly gendered male demographic that the industry perceives as its main market.”2 In other words, the gendered origins of video games and the video game industry continue to have a significant impact on the role gender plays in the present world of video games.

Hot Tubs and Pac-Man begins with a description of the early days of the video game company Atari, demonstrating that from the outset video game development was steeped in a sexist culture. This culture was evident both in the audiences targeted and the way that games were promoted. McDivitt then describes how Pac-man helped game developers see women as a potential audience in the early 1980s. However, this potential shift was overshadowed by the abundance of under-developed, X-rated, and dangerously sexist games produced around the same time. The objectionable quality and content of these games led to the 1983 game industry crash. Despite a resurgence with an influx of Japanese games, McDivitt argues that the sexist origins of video games in America continue to have a significant impact on the current gaming world.

When describing her methodology, McDivitt argues that to understand “both men and women and their relationship with video games, as well as the industry that created them,” we need to “consider the cultural context” of the video game industry’s beginnings. 3 This is because “Technology does not exist independent of the gender norms and codes of the society that produces and uses it…[it] is produced by and interacts with existing social norms.” 4

While the significance of cultural context may seem intuitive, it is easy to forget when one is playing games for fun. Despite how easy it can be to overlook, the stakes of considering context are actually quite high, especially when considering history-themed video games as we did in class. As Jeremiah McCall puts it, video games “have the potential to be very powerful media for encouraging thought about historical processes and how they have influenced agents in the past.” 5

For example, in The Oregon Trail the player views the 1800s from the perspective of white settlers hoping to make it to Oregon alive. What this system of gameplay assumes, however, is that the player should want the white settler to settle in Oregon. Thus, the system of gameplay hides the brutal costs of westward expansion and masks buy-in to Manifest Destiny. This perspective likely has its roots in the cultural attitudes towards westward expansion held by the white developers when the game was made in the 1970s 6. Thus, understanding the historical context of game development is critical to examining the underlying implications of their stories, systems, and themes.

  1. Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Hot Tubs and Pac-Man: Gender and the Early Video Game Industry in the United States (1950s—1980s) (De Gruyter: Berlin, 2020), 1. ↩︎
  2. McDivitt, Hot Tubs and Pac-Man, 1. ↩︎
  3. McDivitt, Hot Tubs and Pac-Man, 6. ↩︎
  4. McDivitt, Hot Tubs and Pac-Man, 5. ↩︎
  5. Jeremiah McCall, “Video Games as Participatory Public History,” in A Companion to Public History, ed. David Dean, 1st. ed. (John Wiley & Sons: 2018), 409. ↩︎
  6. Kevin Wong, “The Forgotten History of ‘The Oregon Trail,’ As Told By Its Creators.” ↩︎

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